Glossary of Terms

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ACT – Legislation (a bill or joint resolution, see below) which has passed both chambers of Congress in identical form, been signed into law by the President, or passed over his veto, thus becoming law. Technically, this term also refers to a bill that has been passed by one house and engrossed (prepared as an official copy).

ADJOURN – A motion to adjourn ends that day’s session.

ADJOURN FOR MORE THAN 3 DAYS – Under the Constitution, neither chamber may adjourn for more than three days without the approval of the other. Such approval is obtained in a concurrent resolution approved by both chambers.

ADJOURNMENT SINE DIE – The end of a legislative session “without day.” These adjournments are used to indicate the final adjournment of an annual or the two-year session of a Congress.

ADVICE AND CONSENT – Under the Constitution, presidential nominations for executive and judicial posts take effect only when confirmed by the Senate, and international treaties become effective only when the Senate approves them by a two-thirds vote.

AMENDMENT – A proposal to alter the text of a pending bill or other measure by striking out some of it, by inserting new language, or both.

AMENDMENT IN THE NATURE OF A SUBTITUTE – An amendment that would strike out the entire text of a bill or other measure and insert a different full text.

APPROPRIATION – The provision of funds, through an annual appropriations act or a permanent law, for federal agencies to make payments out of the Treasury for specified purposes.

AUTHORIZATION –  A statutory provision that obligates funding for a program or agency. An authorization may be effective for one year, a fixed number of years, or an indefinite period. An authorization may be for a definite amount of money or for “such sums as may be necessary.” The formal federal spending process consists of two sequential steps: authorization and then appropriation.

AUTHORIZATIONS ACT –  A law that establishes or continues one or more Federal agencies or programs, establishes the terms and conditions under which they operate, authorizes the enactment of appropriations, and specifies how appropriated funds are to be used. Authorizations acts sometimes provide permanent appropriations.

BASELINE – Projection of the receipts, outlays, and other budget amounts that would ensue in the future without any change in existing policy. Baseline projections are used to gauge the extent to which proposed legislation, if enacted into law, would alter current spending and revenue levels.

BILL – The principal vehicle employed by lawmakers for introducing their proposals. Bills are designated with an S (for the Senate) or H.R. (for the House of Representatives) and a number depending on the order in which they are introduced in the respective chamber. They address either matters of general interest (“public bills”) or narrow interest (“private bills”), such as immigration cases and individual claims against the Federal government.

BUDGET AUTHORITY – Authority provided by law to enter into obligations that will result in outlays of Federal funds. Budget authority may be classified by the period of availability (one-year, multiyear, no-year), by the timing of congressional action (current or permanent), or by the manner of determining the amount available (definite or indefinite).

BUDGET RESOLUTION – Legislation in the form of a concurrent resolution setting forth the congressional budget. The budget resolution establishes various budget totals, divides spending totals into functional categories (e.g., transportation), and may include reconciliation instructions to designated House or Senate committees.

CAUCUS – An informal organization of Members of the House, the Senate, or both, that exists to discuss issues of mutual concern and possibly to perform legislative research and policy planning for its members. There are regional, political or ideological, ethnic, and economic-based caucuses.  The Congressional Fire Services Caucus is the largest caucus in Congress. 

CHAIRMAN –The presiding officer of a committee or subcommittee.

CHAPLAIN – Each chamber has a clergyman tasked with open the daily sessions with prayer. The chaplain is also available as an advisor and counselor to members, their families, and congressional employees.

CLASS – Article I, section 3 of the Constitution requires the Senate to be divided into three classes for purposes of elections.  Senators are elected to six-year terms, and every two years the members of one class—approximately one-third of the Senators—face election or reelection.  

CLEAN BILL – Generally, after a committee has amended legislation, the chairman may be authorized by the panel to assemble the changes and what remains unchanged from the original bill and then reintroduce everything as a clean bill.

CLOAKROOM – Democratic and Republican cloakrooms adjacent to the chambers serve as gathering places for party members to discuss chamber business privately.

CLOTURE – The only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.

COMMITTEE – Subsidiary organization of the House and Senate established for the purpose of considering legislation, conducting hearings and investigations, or carrying out other assignments as instructed by the parent chamber.

COMMITTEE AMENDMENT – An amendment recommended by a committee in reporting a bill or other measure.

COMMITTEE JURISDICTION – The subjects and functions assigned to a committee by rule, resolution, precedent, or practice, including legislative matters, oversight and investigations, and nominations of executive officers.

COMPANION BILL OR MEASURE – Similar or identical legislation which is introduced in the Senate and House. House and Senate lawmakers who share similar views on legislation may introduce a companion bill in their respective chambers to promote simultaneous consideration of the measure.

CONCURRENT RESOLUTION – A legislative measure generally employed to address the sentiments of both chambers, to deal with issues or matters affecting both houses, such as a concurrent budget resolution, or to create a temporary joint committee. Concurrent resolutions are not submitted to the President and thus do not have the force of law.

CONDITIONAL ADJOURNMENT – When Congress adjourns for more than three days, authority is often provided the Speaker and President Pro Tempore (or the Senate Majority Leader) to reconvene Congress at an earlier date to address an emergency or important issue. This authority is provided in the concurrent resolution authorizing the conditional adjournment.

CONFEREES – Members appointed to serve on conference committees. They are also called “managers.” Conferees are usually appointed from the committee or committees that reported the legislation; they are expected to try and uphold their chamber’s position on measures when they negotiate with conferees from the other body.

CONFERENCE REPORT  – The compromise product negotiated by the conference committee. The “conference report” is submitted to each chamber for its consideration, such as approval or disapproval.

CONFIRMATION – Informal term for the Senate giving “Advice and Consent” to a presidential nomination for an executive or judicial position.

CONGRESSIONAL RECORD –  The substantially verbatim account of daily proceedings in each chamber. It is printed for each day either the House or Senate is in session. At the back of each daily issue is the “Daily Digest,” which summarizes the day’s floor and committee activities.

CONSIDERATION – To “call up” or “lay down” a bill or other measure is to place it before the chamber for consideration, including debate, amendment, and voting.

CONTINUING RESOLUTION/CONTINUING APPROPRIATIONS – Legislation in the form of a joint resolution enacted by Congress, when the new fiscal year is about to begin or has begun, to provide budget authority for Federal agencies and programs to continue in operation until the regular appropriations acts are enacted.

DEFICIT (surplus)  – The amount by which outlays exceed receipts in a given fiscal period. (A surplus would be the amount by which receipts exceed outlays.)

DISCRETIONARY SPENDING – Spending (budget authority and outlays) controlled in annual appropriations acts.

ENACTED – Once legislation has passed both chambers of Congress in identical form, been signed into law by the President, become law without his signature, or passed over his veto, the legislation is enacted.

ENGROSSED BILL – The official copy of a bill or joint resolution passed by either the House or Senate.

ENROLLED BILL  – The final copy of a bill or joint resolution which has passed both chambers in identical form. It is printed on parchment paper, signed by appropriate House and Senate officials, and submitted to the President for signature.

ENTITLEMENT – A Federal program or provision of law that requires payments to any person or unit of government that meets the eligibility criteria established by law. Entitlements constitute a binding obligation on the part of the Federal Government, and eligible recipients have legal recourse if the obligation is not fulfilled. Social Security and veterans’ compensation and pensions are examples of entitlement programs.

EX OFFICIO – Literally, by virtue of one’s office. The term refers to the practice that allows the chairman and ranking minority member of a committee to participate in any of the subcommittees of that committee, but generally not to vote.

EXECUTIVE BUSINESS – Nominations and treaties; called executive business because these categories of business are received by the Senate from the President, rather than introduced by Senators.

EXECUTIVE CALENDAR – A list of executive business (i.e., treaties and nominations) available for Senate floor consideration.

EXECUTIVE COMMUNICATION – A message sent by the President or other executive branch official. Presidential veto messages are an example of an “executive communication.”

EXECUTIVE SESSION – A portion of the Senate’s daily session in which it considers executive business.

FILIBUSTER – Informal term for any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.

FISCAL YEAR – The fiscal year is the accounting period for the federal government which begins on October 1 and ends on September 30. The fiscal year is designated by the calendar year in which it ends. Congress passes appropriations legislation to fund the government for every fiscal year.

FLOOR – Action “on the floor” is that which occurs as part of a formal session. An action “from the floor” is one taken by a member during session. A member who has been recognized to speak by the Chair is said to “have the floor.”

FLOOR AMENDMENT – An amendment offered from the floor during consideration of a bill or other measure, in contrast to a committee amendment.

FLOOR MANAGER– Members designated to lead and organize consideration of a bill or other measure on the floor. They usually are the chairman and ranking minority member of the reporting committee or their designees.

GERMANE – On the subject of the pending bill or other business; a strict standard of relevance.

HEARING – A meeting of a committee or subcommittee — generally open to the public — to take testimony in order to gather information and opinions on proposed legislation, to conduct an investigation, or review the operation or other aspects of a Federal agency or program.

HOLD – An informal practice by which a Senator informs his or her floor leader that he or she does not wish a particular bill or other measure to reach the floor for consideration. The Majority Leader need not follow the Senator’s wishes, but is on notice that the opposing Senator may filibuster any motion to proceed to consider the measure.

JOINT COMMITTEE – Committees including membership from both houses of Congress. Joint committees are usually established with narrow jurisdictions and normally lack authority to report legislation. Chairmanship usually alternates between the House and Senate members from Congress to Congress.

JOINT MEETING – An occasion, often ceremonial, when the House and Senate meet together to hear an address by various dignitaries, such as foreign leaders.

JOINT RESOLUTION – A legislative measure which requires the approval of both chambers and, with one exception, is submitted (just as a bill) to the President for possible signature into law. The one exception is that joint resolutions (and not bills) are used to propose constitutional amendments. These resolutions require a two-thirds affirmative vote in each house but are not submitted to the President; they become effective when ratified by three-quarters of the States.

JOINT SESSION – When the House and Senate meet together to conduct formal business or to hear an address by the President of the United States.

JOURNAL – Under the Constitution, the House and Senate are required to keep a Journal of their official proceedings, such as motions agreed to and votes taken.

"LAME DUCK" SESSION – When either chamber of Congress reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November general elections to consider various items of business. Some lawmakers who return for this session will not be in the next Congress. Hence, they are informally called “lame duck” Members participating in a “lame duck” session.

LAYOVER – Informal term for a period of delay required by rule. For example, when a bill or other measure is reported from committee, it may be considered on the floor only after it “lies over” for one legislative day and after the written report has been available for two calendar days. Layover periods may be waived by unanimous consent.

LEAVE TO SIT – Permission for a committee to meet during the proceedings of the parent chamber. Under Senate Rule XXVI committees are forbidden to meet after the first two hours of the Senate’s daily session, and in no case after 2 p.m. while the Senate is in session, without special permission from the majority and minority leaders.

LEGISLATIVE DAY – A “day” that starts when the chamber meets after an adjournment and ends when the chamber next adjourns. Hence, a legislative day may extend over several calendar days or even weeks and months.

LEGISLATIVE SESSION – That part of the chamber’s daily session in which it considers legislative business (bills, resolutions, and actions related thereto).

LINE-ITEM VETO – Authority to veto part rather than all of an appropriations act. The President does not now have item-veto authority. He must sign or veto the entire appropriations act.

MANDATORY SPENDING – Spending (budget authority and outlays) controlled by laws other than annual appropriations acts.

MARKUP – The process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation.

MEASURE – Term embracing bill, resolution and other matters on which Congress takes action.
morning business – Routine business that is supposed to occur during the first two hours of a new legislative day. This business includes receiving messages from the President, reports from executive branch officials, petitions from citizens, memorials from States, and committee reports, and the introduction of bills and submission of resolutions.

MOTION TO PROCEED TO CONSIDER – A motion to bring a bill or other measure up for consideration. The usual way of bringing a measure to the floor when unanimous consent to do so cannot be obtained. For legislative business, the motion is debatable under most circumstances.

NOMINATION – An appointment by the President to executive or judicial office that is subject to Senate confirmation.

NONGERMANE AMENDMENT – An amendment that would add new and different subject matter to, or may be irrelevant to, the bill or other measure it seeks to amend.

OBLIGATION– An order placed, contract awarded, service received, or similar transaction during a given period that will require payments during the same or a future period.

OFF-BUDGET ENTITIES – The budget authority, outlays, and receipts of certain Federal entities that have been excluded from budget totals under provisions of law. At present, off-budget entities include the Social Security trust funds and the Postal Service.

OUTLAYS – Outlays are payments made (generally through the issuance of checks or disbursement of cash) to liquidate obligations. Outlays during a fiscal year may be for payment of obligations incurred in prior years or in the same year.

OVERRIDE OF A VETO – The process by which each chamber of Congress votes on a bill vetoed by the President. To pass a bill over the President’s objections requires a two-thirds vote in each Chamber. Historically, Congress has overridden fewer than ten percent of all presidential vetoes.

OVERSIGHT – Committee review of the activities of a Federal agency or program.

PARLIAMENTARIAN – The Parliamentarian a chamber’s advisor on the interpretation of its rules and procedures.

PARLIAMENTARY INQUIRY – A question from the floor to the Presiding Officer requesting a clarification of the procedural situation on the floor.

PERMANENT APPROPRIATION – Budget authority that becomes available as the result of previously enacted legislation (substantive legislation or prior appropriations act) and does not require current action by Congress. Budget authority is considered to be “current” if provided in the current session of Congress and “permanent” if provided in prior sessions.

POCKET VETO – The Constitution grants the President 10 days to review a measure passed by the Congress. If the President has not signed the bill after 10 days, it becomes law without his signature. However, if Congress adjourns during the 10-day period, the bill does not become law.

PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE – Under the Constitution, the Vice President serves as President of the Senate. He may vote in the Senate in the case of a tie, but is not required to. The President Pro Tempore (and others designated by him) usually perform these duties during the Vice President’s frequent absences from the Senate.

PROSIDENT PRO TEMPORE – A constitutionally recognized officer of the Senate who presides over the chamber in the absence of the Vice President. The President Pro Tempore (or, “president for a time”) is elected by the Senate and is, by custom, the Senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service.

PRESIDENTIAL SIGNATURE – A proposed law passed by Congress must be presented to the President, who then has 10 days to approve or disapprove it. The President signs bills he supports, making them law. He vetoes a bill by returning it to the house in which it began, usually with a written message. Normally, bills he neither signs nor vetoes within 10 days become law without his signature.

PRIVATE LAW – A private bill enacted into law. Private laws have restricted applicability, often addressing immigration and naturalization issues affecting individuals.

PRO FORMA SESSION – A brief meeting (sometimes only several seconds) in which no business is conducted. It is held usually to satisfy the constitutional obligation that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other.

PROXY VOTING – The practice of allowing a member to cast a vote in committee for an absent member.

PUBLIC DEBT – Cumulative amounts borrowed by the Treasury Department or the Federal Financing Bank from the public or from another fund or account. The public debt does not include agency debt (amounts borrowed by other agencies of the Federal Government). The total public debt is subject to a statutory limit.

PUBLIC LAW – A public bill or joint resolution that has passed both chambers and been enacted into law. Public laws have general applicability nationwide.

QUORUM – The Constitution requires a majority of members for a quorum. Often, fewer members are actually present on the floor, but the body presumes that a quorum is present unless the contrary is shown by a roll call vote or quorum call.

QUORUM CALL – A call of the roll to establish whether a quorum is present.  Often, a quorum call is terminated by unanimous consent before completion, and is used to obtain a brief delay to work out some difficulty or await a member’s arrival.

RANKING MINORITY MEMBER – The highest ranking minority member of a committee or subcommittee.

RECEIPTS – Collections from the public and from payments by participants in certain social insurance and other Federal programs. These collections consist primarily of tax revenues and social insurance premiums, but also include receipts from court fines, certain fees, and deposits of earnings by the Federal Reserve System. Total receipts are compared with total outlays in calculating the budget surplus or deficit.

RECESS – A temporary interruption of business. Generally, each chamber recesses (rather than adjourns) at the end of each calendar day.

RECONCILIATION BILL – A bill containing changes in law recommended pursuant to reconciliation instructions in a budget resolution. If the instructions pertain to only one committee in a chamber, that committee reports the reconciliation bill. If the instructions pertain to more than one committee, the Budget Committee reports an omnibus reconciliation bill, but it may not make substantive changes in the recommendations of the other committees.

RECONCILIATION INSTRUCTION– A provision in a budget resolution directing one or more committees to report (or submit to the Budget Committee) legislation changing existing law in order to bring spending, revenues, or the debt-limit into conformity with the budget resolution. The instructions specify the committees to which they apply, indicate the appropriate dollar changes to be achieved, and usually provide a deadline by which the legislation is to be reported or submitted.

RECONCILIATION PROCESS– A process established in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 by which Congress changes existing laws to conform tax and spending levels to the levels set in a budget resolution. Changes recommended by committees pursuant to a reconciliation instruction are incorporated into a reconciliation measure.

RECONSIDER – Senate rules permit one motion to reconsider any question decided by vote, if offered by a Senator who voted on the winning side. Normally a supporter of the outcome immediately moves to reconsider the vote, and the same Senator or another immediately moves to table this motion, thus securing the outcome of the vote.

REFERRAL – After a bill or resolution is introduced it is normally referred to the committee having jurisdiction over the subject of the bill.

RELEVANT – Many unanimous consent agreements require amendments to a specific bill or other measure to be relevant to the measure.

REPORT – Committees usually publish a committee report to accompany the legislation they have voted out. Committee reports discuss and explain the purpose of measures and contain other, related information. The term may also refer to the action taken by a committee (“report the legislation”) to submit its recommendations.

RESCISSION – The cancellation of budget authority previously provided by Congress. The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 specifies that the President may propose to Congress that funds be rescinded. If both Houses have not approved a rescission proposal (by passing legislation) within 45 days of continuous session, any funds being withheld must be made available for obligation.

RIDER – Informal term for a nongermane amendment to a bill or an amendment to an appropriation bill that changes the permanent law governing a program funded by the bill.

ROLL CALL VOTE – A vote in which each member votes “yea” or “nay” as his or her name is called by the Clerk, so that the names on each side are recorded.

SCOREKEEPING – Procedures for tracking and reporting on the status of congressional budgetary actions, including up-to-date tabulations and reports on congressional actions affecting budget authority, receipts, outlays, the surplus or deficit, and the public debt limit.

SECRETARY OF STATE – The chief legislative officer nominated by the majority party conference and elected by the Senate. The Secretary affirms the accuracy of bill text by signing all measures that pass the Senate. The Secretary supervises the preparation and printing of bills and reports, the publication of the Congressional Record and Senate journals, and other matters.

SELECT OR SPECIAL COMMITTEE – A committee established for a limited time period to perform a particular study or investigation.

SERGEANT AT ARMS – The chief security officer of each chamber, the Sergeant at Arms and staff in the office help to preserve order in the chamber and galleries.

SESSION – The period during which Congress assembles and carries on its regular business. Each Congress generally has two regular sessions (a first session and a second session), based on the constitutional mandate that Congress assemble at least once each year.

SIMPLE RESOLUTION – Simple resolutions are used to express nonbinding positions or to deal with the internal affairs. They do not require action by the other chamber.

SLIP LAW – A few days after a law has been enacted, it is officially published first as a “slip law.” Slip laws are unbound and printed on one or a few pages of paper.

STANDING COMMITTEE – Permanent committees specializing in the consideration of particular subject areas.

STATUTES AT LARGE – A chronological listing of the laws enacted each Congress. They are published in volumes numbered by Congress.

STATUTORY LIMIT ON THE PUBLIC DEBT – The maximum amount, established in law, of public debt that can be outstanding. The limit covers virtually all debt incurred by the Federal Government (primarily the Treasury Department), including borrowing from trust funds, but excludes some debt incurred by agencies.

SUBCOMMITTEE – Subunit of a committee established for the purpose of dividing the committee’s workload. Recommendations of a subcommittee must be approved by the full committee before being reported to the Senate.

SUPPLEMENTAL APPROPRIATION – Budget authority provided in an appropriations act in addition to regular or continuing appropriations already provided. Supplemental appropriations generally are made to cover emergencies, such as disaster relief, or other needs deemed too urgent to be postponed until the enactment of next year’s regular appropriations act.

TRUST FUNDS – Funds collected and used by the Federal Government for carrying out specific purposes and programs according to terms of a trust agreement or statute, such as the Social Security trust funds.

UNANIMOUS CONSENT – A request for unanimous consent on the floor to set aside a specified rule of procedure so as to expedite proceedings.

UNANIMOUS CONSENT AGREEMENT – A unanimous consent request setting terms for the consideration of a specified bill or other measure.

USER FEES – Fees charged to users of goods or services provided by the Federal Government. In levying or authorizing these fees, Congress determines whether the revenue should go into the Treasury or should be available to the agency providing the goods or services.

VETO – The procedure established under the Constitution by which the President refuses to approve a bill or joint resolution and thus prevents its enactment into law. A regular veto occurs when the President returns the legislation to the house in which it originated. The President usually returns a vetoed bill with a message indicating his reasons for rejecting the measure. The veto can be overridden only by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House.

VOICE VOTE – A vote in which the Presiding Officer states the question, then asks those in favor and against to say “Yea” or “Nay,” respectively, and announces the result according to his or her judgment.

VOTE – Unless rules specify otherwise, each chamber may agree to any question by a majority of members voting, if a quorum is present. The Chair puts each question by voice vote unless the “yeas and nays” are requested, in which case a roll call vote occurs.

WHIPS – Assistants to the floor leaders who are also elected by their party conferences. The Majority and Minority Whips (and their assistants) are responsible for mobilizing votes within their parties on major issues. In the absence of a party floor leader, the whip often serves as acting floor leader.

YEAS AND NAYS – A member who wants a roll call vote on a pending question asks for the “yeas and nays” on the question.

YIELD – When a member who has been recognized to speak “yields” to another, he or she permits the other to speak while the first member retains the floor.

YIELD THE FLOOR – A member who has been recognized to speak yields the floor when he or she completes his or her remarks and terminates his or her recognition.